The Clausing Family
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Dear Teenage Driver

Dear Teenage Driver,

I don't even know where to begin in trying to explain to you what we have been through since the day of the accident, and how our family's life will never resemble what it once was or what we thought it would be. I will try to summarize, though, please understand that it would be impossible to adequately express the pain and heartache we have experienced. And there is no way to make you realize the daily challenges and sadness we will live with every day for the rest of our lives.

August 7, 2009 started off as a very happy day. I was at home, along with our two children (ages 4 and 6) and other children I watched. That day was planned to be my last day as a home daycare provider because I was going to take more classes in the fall and then enter the full-time nursing program in January 2010.

Ryan worked as a computer programmer for Humana in Louisville. That day he was working from home due to flooding in his cubicle at work. His lunchbreak was coming up and he told me he was going to file our house exemptions. I asked him if he could also go to the post office to send out the kids' birthday pictures to their grandparents. He was glad to do it, especially since it was a beautiful day outside, which meant he could take his motorcycle. While he was gone, the kids and I watched a helicopter land and take off near the road behind our house. We didn't know that it was there to pick up Ryan.

Ryan was gone for several hours before a police officer showed up at our door to tell me that I needed to go to the hospital. He said Ryan had been in a motorcycle accident but wouldn't say any more than that. He only expressed urgency in getting to the hospital. Once there, we found out that Ryan had almost died, may need to have his right leg amputated, and had a spinal cord injury which would leave him paralyzed from the chest down at nipple level. When we saw him, he was hooked up to tons of machines and IV's and was still dripping blood everywhere. He was unconscious, swollen, and struggling to breathe. I couldn't believe it was him. We weren't in there very long before we were told to leave and go to a private waiting room. We waited for what seemed like forever and then were called in to a doctor's office where we were told that they didn't expect Ryan to live. Words cannot express what goes through you when you're told that your husband is going to die.

Ryan did not die. During his four week stay in the ICU, I slept in a chair by his bed and left the hospital only to go home to shower and do laundry. I stayed by his side day and night, watching his vitals go from stable to critical and back constantly during the two long weeks that he was in a coma.
Ryan put up the the fight of his life. Many units of blood, fluids, and medications were needed to keep his blood pressure stable. A ventilator breathed for him through the trach in his neck. He was fed through a tube inserted directly into his stomach. Three tubes were placed into his chest wall as treatment for his collapsed lung. He wore a cervical collar to avoid further damage to his neck which suffered a three part fracture. Other injuries that were treated non-operatively included his ankle, first rib, clavicle and scapula fractures.

Multiple surgeries were performed to save his right leg from amputation. A metal plate was screwed into his right wrist. Ryan received many bronchoscopies where the doctor steered a camera and tube around inside of his lungs to suction out liquid and phlegm that endangered his life. He battled pneumonia and many other infections while doctors waited for his vitals to stabilize enough to perform surgery to repair his crushed spine. After two cancellations due to infections, the first attempt had to be aborted immediately after the spinal incision was made. If they would have continued he would have died because his body couldn't handle it at that time like they had hoped. Ryan was eventually able to get his spinal surgery where rods and screws were used to fuse his shattered vertebrae back together.
When Ryan “woke up” and opened his eyes I was ecstatic, but quickly learned that coming out of a coma doesn't happen like in the movies. It is a very slow and rough process, and the patient is very agitated. When Ryan disconnected the ventilator that was breathing for him, I ran out to the nurses' station screaming.

Eventually I learned how to reattach it myself. Ryan's arms had to be tied down to the bed rails at night so that I could sleep and not have to be up all night preventing him from ripping out IV's and disconnecting the ventilator tubing from his trach. Nurses had to put a tongue suppressor in his mouth and tie it around his face because his tongue was so swollen that it wouldn't stay in his mouth and he was close to chewing it off. During some of his highest fevers, he had to lay on a cooling blanket that was 40 degrees while I constantly wiped off his sweat with damp washrags. So much more went on during this time than I could ever write.

While I stayed with Ryan in the hospital, our kids were taken care of by friends and family members. After a few weeks, they moved in with Ryan's mom. Our son who is in the first grade, had to switch schools. I barely saw them during this time and they didn't get to see Ryan at all for 4.5 weeks because I didn't feel they could handle it. There were times when our adult friends couldn't even stand to be in the room with Ryan because it was so difficult to see him in that condition. Finally the day came when Ryan was out of the ICU and doing well enough for the kids to see him. I had to show them a picture I took of Ryan on my phone to explain to them beforehand all of the “stuff” that was attached to their daddy so they wouldn't be scared when they saw him. We have pictures of that first meeting where they are signing “I love you” to each other because Ryan still wasn't able to talk at this point. The kids were thrilled to finally see their daddy but now their feelings of wanting us all home were even stronger. Our four year old daughter had to be peeled off of me while screaming and crying whenever she had to leave the hospital after a visit.

At about the 5 week mark Ryan was moved to inpatient rehab at Frazier, where he remained for 6 weeks. He could now talk quietly by plugging the hole in his neck. He also had his first sip of water and bite of mashed food at this time. I went to his therapies with him where they worked on his first out-of-bed goal of sitting. He had no use of his trunk muscles and was very weak from laying in bed for 5 weeks, not to mention all the pain and weakness from his broken bones. It took four people to help hold him in a sitting position when he started. You can imagine how excited I was the day he was able to balance enough to lean over and put on a sock by himself. It was so hard to watch my once big, strong husband look so helpless as he was rolled over in bed by strangers to be bathed, dressed, and have his diaper changed.

Ryan was discharged from rehab at the end of October – 11 weeks after the accident. We were so happy to be together at home as a family again! But he has since been hospitalized four times for UTI's and our kids had to stay with other people while they worried and cried again. We were told infections are a common problem for people living with paralysis. While hospitalized in January, the infection spread to his kidneys and he entered sepsis and we once again had to fear losing him. We try to stay positive. We try to focus on all the progress he has made and continues to make. We try to focus on our blessings – he is alive, can speak, and he can use his arms. We try to stay hopeful and optimistic even though his spinal cord injury is classified as “complete – ASIA A” the worst possible. He has no sensation, movement, or control of anything below his nipple line and is not expected to regain any of it back. We try not to think too much about all the things he can no longer do, or about how his health is now forever compromised. We try to make light of things when we can and enjoy our family and life as much as possible.

But putting positivity and hope aside...to be frank, this accident that could have been avoided has destroyed our life as we knew it. Ryan used to be very healthy and active. He ran 5 K's with his mom. He jumped on the trampoline with our kids. He gave them piggy back rides, played ball, and pushed them on the swings. He was in the middle of building them a big, sturdy playset that he designed specifically for our family so that we could all climb on it together. He made the swingset in our yard to hold four swings, one for each of us.

Ryan was “Mr. Fix-it” around the house and now he can't even get to half of our house because of stairs, tight corners, and small doorways. We have worked up to getting him into the shower of our small bathroom about once a week now, which is very difficult and time-consuming. He has to have bed baths in between shower days. I have to set out his toothbrush, razor, and supplies for him at the bedside or kitchen table everyday and then put it all away when he is done using them. He can't get up to the kids' playroom or out to the backyard to play with them. Every once in awhile he will find the energy and make the time to maneuver himself into the hallway to squeeze through the kids' doorways, usually while scraping his knuckles, to tell them good-night. Most nights he is too tired and in too much pain, so the kids say good-night to Ryan in the living room.

While Ryan was in the hospital, before our kids had even seen him, our son heard stories from classmates about how Ryan's bones were sticking out of his leg when he got hit by the car. Our son has been having trouble falling asleep at night because his six year old brain gets going, and he can't stop worrying that someone is going to crash into him and he's going to “end up like Daddy.” Overall, though, the kids are adjusting better than we expected, and they are often what keeps us going. They are definitely good motivation for us to get out of bed each day.

But for as much as they make us smile, they also break our hearts when they talk about things Ryan used to do with them that he can't do now. Ryan now has limited involvement with everything we do with the kids. He often has to be a spectator instead of the involved Dad he used to be. Our daughter has asked Ryan a few times now “Daddy, when will you be done with your motorcycle accident so you can jump on the trampoline with us again?” If you want to see a grown man cry in a matter of seconds, just ask Ryan how this has affected our kids. They often talk about things Ryan will be able to do again “when he is done with his motorcycle accident.” It's very hard to see the children doing things with other adults, knowing that Ryan should be the one showing them how to swing a bat or catch a football.

One day my daughter and I were talking about taking a family trip to Disney World someday, and she was concerned that Ryan wouldn't be able to go because there might be stairs. She was very relieved when I told her that there would be ramps there for him. And the kids are still trying to understand why their Daddy can't feel it when they touch him in certain places. One morning I heard Ryan telling our daughter that he couldn't feel her trying to tickle his feet. She was very upset and said “I want you to be ticklish again!” I quickly showed her how to gently tickle his armpits to make him laugh. Sometimes our son will touch him in different spots, asking “Did you feel that?” and he'll try to hide his disappointment when Ryan can't feel his touch. That accident in August only directly involved Ryan, but he wasn't the only one hurt and affected forever.

I've learned that most married people who suffer a spinal cord injury end up divorced. That won't happen with us, but it's easy to see why it's so common. Living with this injury, and being the spouse and caregiver to someone with this injury is so physically and emotionally draining. Ryan and I used to hear how “marriage is hard work” but we never understood that. Being married and happy together was easy for us. Now things are a lot more challenging. Patience levels are down, frustration and stress levels are up, but now we have to communicate and negotiate more than ever. If I'm tired but Ryan wants to stay up watching TV in the living room, I can't just go to bed on my own. We have to go at the same time so I can help him get into bed and do his nightly routine. When Ryan wants to get out of the house for any reason, I have to be willing to drive him and load and unload the wheelchair at each stop. Even picking out Ryan's clothes can be a cause of frustration when I can't find the shirt he wants and he can't go into the closet to look for it himself. Before the accident if I was slacking on the housework, Ryan would start cleaning or do a load of laundry without saying a word. Now when a mess is bothering him and he can't take care of it himself, he gets frustrated and I feel attacked and guilty when he complains about it.

I can no longer have the confidence and sense of protection that I used to have in knowing that my husband would always take care of us. He could build anything that needed building, fix anything that needed fixing, reach anything that was up high, move anything that was too heavy, and solve any problem that faced us. Before the accident Ryan was able to do absolutely anything. Now he has to rely on other people to do almost everything for him. He's gotten more used to having to depend on others, but it will always be a great source of frustration for him.

Along with all of the work and stress resulting from Ryan's injuries, there is so much that I miss about our old life that I will never have again. I miss just seeing Ryan standing up and walking. I miss seeing his energy and excitement when he played with the kids. I miss having to stand on my tiptoes to give him a kiss. I miss his big strong hugs that made me feel so safe in his arms – I always told him “I love your bigness.” I miss him driving, pumping gas, and putting away groceries. I miss him surprising me by quickly picking me up and twirling me around in the air. I miss being able to playfully push him onto the bed as we walked past it together. I miss wrestling around with him, tickling his stomach as he tried to stretch, holding his hand when we walk, and beating him at badminton in the backyard. There have been nights that I've cried while laying in bed together because I miss making love to my husband and I know that I will never have that back. While he's sleeping I find myself poking and tickling him, hoping for some kind of physical reaction, even though I always end up feeling disappointed. It's very painful to think about all the things we will never experience again.

All of the things Ryan can no longer do have been replaced with new things that he now has to do. He has to stick a tube into his penis and extend it into his bladder every 4 hours. He has to wear an external catheter connected to a tube and a leg bag to catch the urine that comes out between internally cathing. Every day I have to put my fingers into his rectum to manually empty his bowels. He has to wear a diaper and often has “accidents” that require both of us to get his 200 pound body onto our bed, undressed, cleaned up and redressed. I cannot count the times we've had to delay or change our plans because of his lack of ability to control his bodily functions. Since he can't get into the bathroom for his care, our bedroom always has a smell of urine and BM to it. Ryan used to take a lot of pride in his appearance, being sure to never leave the house without his hair done and cologne on. Now our main objective is to make sure he doesn't smell like urine. There have been many nights where he would be sitting in bed undressed and look down at his legs and poke at them. Then he would look at the catheter tubing going up his leg where it was attached to his penis, and shake his head while saying sadly “I can't believe I have to wear a diaper.”

One day Ryan fell to the floor when trying to get onto the couch. He wanted to try to get up by himself, and became very upset when he couldn't. He was already in a lot of pain and frustrated from that, so that fall and his inability to pick himself up, sparked an explosion of emotions causing him to cry, scream, curse, punch his legs, and try to throw his wheelchair away from him. Before the accident he had never, ever lost his temper or made such faces of hate and disgust. It wasn't the first time he'd had a (understandable, but heartbreaking) tantrum like this, but it was the first time I had to make the kids go to their rooms so they wouldn't see it. He eventually calmed down and the two of us managed to lift him to the couch, only to realize that he'd had a bowel movement.

He is in constant pain and has to take pain killers every few hours just to function. He is on medication to prevent his blood pressure from getting dangerously low. He has to wear compression stockings on his legs to help with blood pressure and prevent blood clots. We have to reposition him throughout the night and he has to consciously shift his body in his wheelchair to prevent pressure sores. It seems that our main focus each day now deals with management of bladder, bowels, skin, spasms, and pain. I could go on and on about how difficult our life is now because of his spinal cord injury, but I haven't even mentioned his brain injury yet.

Ryan was wearing a helmet – a very expensive helmet, and it saved his life. He still suffered a closed head injury and now he struggles with short-term memory deficits, attention, and initiation. The problems resulting from his head injury are severe enough that even if his physical limitations didn't get in the way, we don't know if he will ever be able to return to work (which he really wants to do!). In December he had about an 8 hour long neuropsych evaluation which resulted in me being told that there was no way he would be able to function in a work environment at that time. So now let me add “financial stress” to our list of worries, especially since I am now required to stay home as Ryan's full-time (unpaid) caregiver. Along with physical and occupational therapy, Ryan also receives speech therapy three times a week for cognitive rehabilitation. We are very grateful that he still has his personality and humor, but before this accident he was so smart and capable of anything. Recently I had to send our four year old daughter with him to find the elevator and therapy room so he wouldn't get lost while I parked the car.

At first your insurance company told me that Ryan was speeding and said he was 40% at fault for the accident. They said they knew it because of the amount of damage done to the vehicle and that a 9 year old witness said he saw Ryan speeding. I have spoken with the boy's mother and she told me that the insurance company lied to me. Her son said that Ryan did NOT appear to be speeding. As for the damage to the vehicle...Ryan's motorcycle and entire body came to a dead stop at impact so the damage from that is not surprising. He was just driving in a straight line when all of a sudden there was an SUV turning in front of him and there was nothing he could do to avoid it. I think it is obvious to anyone who looks at the police report, photographs, or visits the accident site, that Ryan did nothing wrong that day. Ryan respected his motorcycle and valued his family and life. He lectured other people on the importance of proper riding gear and the stupidity of speeding and doing tricks. There was also a stop sign at a T-intersection coming up not far past the accident point that even an irresponsible driver would not be speeding towards. We felt some anger leave when your insurance company eventually claimed you to be 100% at fault for the accident.

We don't know what the future holds, but we know it is a lot different than what we had planned, and it's all because of a teenage driver who did not take the responsibility of driving seriously. Within six months of turning 16, you had already received two tickets for excessive speeding – 19 mph over the limit. You were cited in the police report for “failure to yield” when you almost killed Ryan, but were still allowed to continue driving. After the toxicology report came back, showing that you had marijuana in your system at the time of the crash, your parents argued that you shouldn't be punished, claiming that you weren't high at the time. You also claim you didn't see Ryan because of a “dip in the road.” First of all, you should have seen him long before you got to the point of turning. It's a totally straight road with a clear view all the way down. Secondly, there is no dip in the road. There is a slight incline that may have made some of the wheel of Ryan's motorcycle unable to be seen, but if you were looking at all, there was no reason for you to have not seen him. Our lawyer asked if we would like to file a lawsuit against the county for this “dip in the road” but we declined. We feel the layout of the road did not play a role in this accident at all, and we only blame your actions for the way our life is now. Let's pretend that there WAS a huge dip that made it impossible to see him, the point here is that you have to LOOK before you make a turn. If you do not agree with this, then you will be the cause of many more accidents.

So now we are having to adjust to a life of Ryan being paralyzed and brain injured. We have to figure out a way to try to maintain a stable and full-filling life for our kids. The life of our entire family has been drastically changed forever, yet you, the one responsible for the change continue to have a nonchalant attitude about driving and breaking laws. One would like to think that people learn from their mistakes, especially ones so huge. It angers us to no end that you continue to show no remorse or lessons learned from this. Since your parents refuse to hold you accountable, and have told you that you did nothing wrong, you are not going to learn from this unless the court system is able to make you take some responsibility for your actions.

We understand that “accidents happen” and that sometimes there are cases of “that could have happened to me.” But this is not one of those cases. There was no blind corner or slick spot of black ice. It was a straight road on a sunny day. Ryan chose that route because it was peaceful with little traffic. He was minding his own business, just driving his motorcycle in a straight line when all of a sudden there was a Chevy Blazer turning into a driveway in front of him and there was nothing he could do to avoid it. His skid marks were so close to your driveway that it looks as though you just missed turning right into him. The rubber on the road leading up to your vehicle makes us wonder if you did, in fact, see Ryan coming and thought you could quickly make the turn before he got to your driveway.

In the beginning, even as I feared for Ryan's life, I said that I was not mad at you. When we came home and were overwhelmed and frustrated while trying to adjust to life with Ryan's disabilities, I said that I hated the situation, but I didn't hate you. I assumed that you felt bad and thought that we would be receiving an apology. I even daydreamed that our families would become friendly, you would babysit our kids, and you and Ryan would get together to lecture other new drivers about safety and awareness in order to make the roads safer for everybody.

As more time went on and we received no apology and we began to learn more and more about the kind of life you were allowed to continue with, and the way you seemed to be proud of your law-breaking activities, the thoughts of becoming friendly with you and your family faded. Those thoughts were replaced with feelings of anger, bitterness, and distrust of the justice system. Why did you get to continue living your life as normal when ours was turned completely upside down, and you were the reason for it? Why didn't your parents prevent you from continuing to drink underage and use illegal drugs, even after you almost killed someone? Did you receive any consequences that you didn't laugh about after receiving those two speeding tickets so soon after obtaining your license? Why were you more concerned about your car being totaled than you were about Ryan who was laying motionless and bleeding in the middle of the road and had to be flown away in a helicopter?

I miss the sense of peace that I felt when I thought that you must be sorry. I'm sure you didn't make a conscious decision to go out and injure Ryan that day. But whenever our kids hurt someone, we teach them to say sorry and offer help, even when they didn't intentionally cause harm. It seems that our children, at four and six years old, have more understanding of personal responsibility, and definitely more compassion than anyone in your family. I don't want to have to continue going through life being angry. But as each day goes by without you having to give any thought to what you have done to us, and each day you are able to remain care-free and continue engaging in dangerous behavior, we feel more and more like victims of a violent crime where the perpetrator is still out free, leaving justice unserved.

So while we do our best to just get through each day, yes, we are angry. But it doesn't matter how angry or depressed or tired or sick we ever get. We will never get a break from any of this. Ryan will always need his pee bag emptied, I won't ever go a day without scooping the feces out of his rectum, he will always need his diaper changed, there will always be urine-soaked laundry to wash, and he will always be in pain, along with everything else that doesn't go away just because we want a break.

Since you have never contacted us to express your apologies, and what we have “heard through the grapevine” about you has been less than heartwarming, we sincerely hope that the consequences you experience will now be enough to change your attitude about what you did to Ryan and our family. If not, then everything we have been, do, and will go through will all be for nothing. You are in a position that has the potential to be very powerful and influential if you choose to make it so. We are trying to make the most out of our situation and are hoping that we will be able to make some good come from this. We really hope that someday you will decide to do the same.

Sincerely,

Jodi Clausing
Loving wife to Ryan

(April, 2010 - 8 months post accident)